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BRAD CLEMONS: Neighborhood garage sales tell us about ourselves

Monday, May 16, 2011 | 11:32 a.m. CDT; updated 8:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 16, 2011

For my wife and me, garage sales reveal that we have an image distortion problem.

Just as people with eating disorders may look in a mirror and see themselves as overweight when really they are too thin, my wife and I look at our home and occasionally wonder if we are destined for the TV show "Hoarders," when really it’s just a mental illusion. Upon preparing for a garage sale, we found there are actually few things we can sell.

In the bathroom, you never know when we might need to use the old toothbrushes, and I’m sure companies will eventually start selling refills for the empty anti-bacterial cream tube in the back of the drawer.

Case in point: One day our coffee pot quit working. I went to put it up on the shelf in the garage, only to find to my joy that we had left the previous coffee pot on the shelf for emergency situations like that one. It took me more than five minutes to dig the old one out and put the new old one up, but I did it. Turns out the predecessor was partially broken too, but I had been meaning to fix it.

What some people see as junk can often be tools. I don’t know how many times I’ve needed a tool or device that I couldn’t find, but because I had mismatched screws or old twine or scrap wood lying around (horizontally, of course, so I can search chronologically through strata), I was able to fix the problem without going to the store. It is good to be very frugal, which is why we should not throw items away that might be needed some day, like the bike I have kept for years for parts.

It’s so hard to distinguish the stuff from the junk. Experts who don’t actually need to do garage sales suggest throwing away any items that haven’t been used for at least one year, but that was nearly everything. Plus, it seems pretty foolish to throw away all my exercise clothes just before I start using them again.

But Friday morning at 6:30, we were feeling pretty good about having gutted our house, because the true junk really does stress us out. It had been emotional, but we did it.

One of the best things we did was telling the kids they could keep the money from their sold items. Our oldest boy cleaned out two entire rooms in less than an hour. We didn't even know he had Barbie sets just like his sister's. He found remote control cars with no remotes and balls with holes in them. Very efficient.

This particular sale was interesting since it was part of a neighborhood garage sale. Normal sales can be good because they can make us reevaluate our own lives, but neighborhood sales can be bad because they cause us compare our junk to other people’s junk, which often creates jealousy and division through competition.

For example, we got the tables out and to our surprise there was no one waiting in our driveway. Usually garage sales start at least half an hour before they start. But, I looked over across the street at our competition, and there they were, Capri Pants Carol and her mom, shopping before the universally agreed upon time of 7 a.m.

An immediate cloud of insecurity blew through our yard. Is their junk better than our junk? What's wrong with our junk? I had not planned to sell the desk I made in shop class, but I had to do something, so I put it out by the street to let the neighbors know we came to play.

Business immediately picked up. Within minutes we had sold my favorite cheese book and an antique pen we probably should not have sold at a garage sale. But then business slowed and we became nervous. Did we just sell our best junk and now we'll get stuck with the bad junk? Will people still come if our big ticket items are gone?

As the day went on, the sales got better. You'd be surprised what people will buy. We sold CDs that were scratched, two 24-piece puzzles with fewer than 16 pieces each, and expired coupons — even though the coupons were door prizes slipped in each sales bag unbeknownst.

One lady almost bought a used distributor cap and plug wires for an ’89 Corolla she didn't even own.

I said, "Oh, you have a Corolla?"

"No."

"You know somebody then?"

"No."

"Oh ... yeah, they're good cars."

But she backed out at the last minute. It's almost as if I had talked her out of it, as if she hadn't thought about the fact that she had no car to match the parts, as if maybe she would buy a Corolla later just so she could use these nice plug wires.

It caused a small epiphany. Why did I have plug wires to a Corolla I didn't own? I looked around. Why had I kept a broken happy meal toy? Why did I have a KC Royals hat? And a "Career Guide for the '90s" book?

I snapped out of it when a lady asked me if I would take a dollar for an item marked $1.25. I was frustrated by her brazenness. I wanted to get rid of that but I have to have my boundaries. It was just too early for me to be cutting 20 percent off. That's a bad precedent.

Now, as it stands, she lost out on a great flashlight over a quarter and I'm stuck with a flashlight and no dollar and a quarter (even after Saturday afternoon's 100-percent-off sale) because she was so unwilling to give over a lousy 25 cents. People!

That's only slightly less irritating than when people refuse to haggle. Some garage salers are so intense they can walk away from an item that is 50 cents because they think it’s overpriced. What 50-cent item is worth walking away from if you want it? I saw a guy looking at a book longingly, but then he scoffed at my 50-cent price. I offered it to him for 25 cents, but he would have nothing of it. Apparently I had offended him with my pricing the book at 200 percent of its true value.

Anyway, we did it. We made more than $89 as a family. I guess we will be taking the kids to spend their portions at Wal-Mart because we can get more for our buck there.

Of course this is minus the money they already spent at all the neighbors’ garage sales.

Brad Clemons lives in Columbia. He buys items at retail prices and sells them at garage sale prices.


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